United 93 is difficult to watch. Difficult because we already know how the fated flight ends. Difficult because we realize no Tom Cruise-like hero will pull the plane out of its plummeting nosedive at the very last minute. Difficult because news images of the burning, gutted Twin Towers stirs up the feelings that followed the impact of four commercial jetliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and an open field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.
For those of us too young to remember where we were when JFK was shot, 9/11 has become our unforgettable moment in time, our defining point in history. I was in the kitchen canning peaches when I got a call, "Turn on the TV." While the pot boiled unheeded, I watched with millions of others--my humdrum activities suddenly forgotten.
The film eerily opens with depictions of similarly mundane activities. Passengers check their baggage, and then wait for a boarding call. They read their email, finish off a business deal, call home, or peruse a newspaper. Pilots and flight attendants show up for another routine day on the job. They talk about their kids and make plans for the upcoming week. On the ground, air traffic controllers tucked into dark offices patrol the airspace on blinking monitors and Newark Airport tower personnel keep an eye on the sky. It's a busy but regular day.
However, cut into these everyday actions are shots of four young men setting out on a mission of another kind.
From an artistic point of view, the film is well crafted, the performances are credible and the script, based on actual conversations, is believable. Staying away from big name headliners, director Paul Greengrass relies on the skills of lesser-known actors who were given studies of their real-life counterparts on the plane. As well, he uses some actual participants from the event to help tell the story. The casting choice allows the screenplay to focus on the heroics at hand without any intrusion from stars or their egos.
As the events unfold the background music introduces a sound like a wildly beating heart and, knowing what's coming, it triggered my own internal palpitations. By the end of the film, there are blood-splattered bodies aboard United 93 and profusely profaning air traffic controllers on the ground. However, it's the ruthless scenes of terrorism likely to leave many audience members wondering if they're ready to relive that September day--for the sake of entertainment.
As the passengers realize the suicidal intent of the hijackers, the depictions of parents and children, lovers and friends calling to say their last good-byes is heart-wrenching. Unnerving also are the shots of the plane flying over the sublime Pennsylvania countryside where people quietly live, unaware of the heroic actions of everyday citizens going on in the air above them.
In the years to come, I hope United 93 will stand as a tribute to those brave men and women, and the sacrifices made by their families. But is now the time for this kind of production? Does United 93 promote healing or add to the heartache? Those will be individual conclusions. Yet in either case, parents should be strongly cautioned about this film's intense subject matter, which they may find inappropriate for their children and teens.